Tahoe biomass plant still planned, despite Liberty Utilities decision | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Tahoe biomass plant still planned, despite Liberty Utilities decision

Amanda Rhoades
arhoades@sierrasun.com

TAHOE CITY, Calif. — The Lake Tahoe Basin may still get its own biomass plant, but it's looking more and more like the project, if it moves forward, will do so with public rather than private investment.

Placer County staff is seeking funding solutions to move the proposed Cabin Creek Biomass Facility forward after Liberty Utilities recently announced it is no longer interested in purchasing the energy the plant would create.

"We can't really move forward until we have someone who wants to buy the energy and the biochar," said Placer County's Environmental Utilities Principal Management Analyst Brett Storey.

HOW IT WORKS

The biomass facility, if built, would use a process called gasification to take things like dead trees and convert them into energy.

"Essentially what it does is, as the wood goes into the vessel it's heated at a high temperature without oxygen," said Storey. "It releases gases from the wood without burning it."

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And since the issue of tree mortality has left California with a surplus of trees that can't be used for much else, the biomass facility would create a use for them by producing energy that can then be sold to utility companies.

"Material that's left over comes out and its called biochar," said Storey. "It's used for water filtration and as a soil amendment."

The U.S. Forest Service announced in June that a recent study it conducted found there were roughly 66 million dead trees in the state — several thousands of which are in the Tahoe National Forest — due to bark beetle infestations aided by the Western drought.

According to the statement, "Four consecutive years of severe drought in California, a dramatic rise in bark beetle infestation and warmer temperatures are leading to historic levels of tree die-off."

The problem has left many communities, including those around Lake Tahoe, with a surplus of dead trees.

"Typically after a fire you can still cut a tree down and send it to the mill, but what happens with the beetle is it kills the tree more quickly, and the wood isn't as valuable to the lumber industry," said Storey. "Because there's not a lot of value to these trees, they can be used for energy."

THE REASON FOR THE DELAY

Meanwhile, construction of the 2-megawatt biomass plant at the Cabin Creek landfill property between Squaw Valley and Truckee was previously expected to begin earlier this year.

Storey said the project has almost everything it needs to move forward at this point — except for a contract with someone who wants to buy the energy.

At the Oct. 25 Placer County Board of Supervisors meeting, Storey told the board that Liberty Utilities, who had previously considered purchasing energy produced by the facility, lost interest.

He said that back around 2008 when the county began considering the biomass facility, the energy market was completely different.

Things like the dipping price of natural gas and warmer winters have made investment in a biomass facility less financially appealing to private companies.

"If the power market were the same as when I had started this whole thing, we'd have already built the thing," Storey said. "The problem is the market has changed."

According to an email statement sent by Liberty Utilities spokesperson Kathy Carter, Liberty Utilities' Vice President Travis Johnson said he applauds the county's effort to promote renewable energy.

"At this time, though, it doesn't make economic sense for Liberty Utilities to purchase energy from this source as it is about twice the cost per kwh (kilowatt hour) as we can produce through our new Luning Solar Plant which will come online by first quarter, 2017," he said.

But in his presentation to the county, Storey said there are other options.

He also told the Sun he's now looking to switch from seeking a private investment to a public one. In other words, he's looking for grants.

"At this point, I need true investment," he said. "The state has a nice program with the California Infrastructure and Economic development bank that I'll be looking to apply for on the county's behalf. Right now I'm in the investigation stage and I'd need to bring it back to the board and get their approval."

According to previous reports, construction of the plant was originally estimated at $12 million, with $1.5 million being funded through Department of Energy grants to the county.

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